County taking first steps toward land bank to fight blight

Barbara Miller
Observer Reporter

Washington County commissioners plan to vote today to advertise an ordinance they expect to enact March 3 setting up what’s known as a “land bank,” a pathway to return blighted properties to the tax rolls.

The board has tasked the Washington County Redevelopment Authority with administering the new program because the authority already “does a lot of what land banks are going to do,” said William McGowan, executive director.

Potential participants include the cities of Washington and Monongahela, Charleroi Borough and East Bethlehem Township, and their school districts, Washington, Ringgold, Charleroi and Bethlehem-Center, respectively.

The initial fee to join the land bank will be $3,000 the first year and $1,000 each year thereafter. The proceeds from the sale of a property would be returned to the land bank to fund future purchases.

A land bank has the capacity to negotiate a sale price for property before it is placed on the auction block at the annual judicial sale, which takes place each June. At a judicial sale, properties on which the owner owes back taxes are sold without local liens – erased by court order – although unpaid state and federal obligations remain. McGowan said the land bank may not be ready for this June, because intergovernmental cooperation agreements must be signed, but it would be operating by the sale scheduled for 2017.

Susan Morgan, brownfields and municipal planning manager for the redevelopment authority, estimated the land bank’s first-year budget at $300,000.

Commission Chairman Larry Maggi identified the Local Share Account of gambling proceeds from The Meadows Racetrack and Casino and Act 13 funds from Marcellus natural gas wells, plus the state Department of Community and Economic Development, as likely sources to help fund the land bank.

The commissioners have chosen to have the redevelopment authority’s board of directors also serve as the land bank’s board.

A land bank is a relatively new method to combat decay. Legislation that took effect in December 2012 after being signed by then-Gov. Tom Corbett, allows cities, counties, boroughs or townships, singly or combined, with populations of 10,000 or more to create what’s known as a land bank to acquire title to tax-delinquent properties, according to an article written last year by Keith L. Rolland, community development advisor to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

Without a method to take over decaying buildings, “properties may stay vacant for years with serious consequences for adjacent properties and the community,” Rolland wrote. “The legislation explicitly excludes eminent domain as a power of land banks.”

McGowan said he sees three paths a land bank can chart for a piece of property: demolishing a blighted building and redeveloping it; tearing down a building to replace it with a municipal use, such as a park; and a side-yard program, which would mean splitting an abandoned property between two neighbors who would like to buy and pay taxes on adjacent halves.

Former Washington Mayor Brenda Davis approached the commissioners in March 2014 asking that the county establish a land bank. Although Davis did not succeed in securing a second term, she was spot-on in predicting that it would take about two years for the city to participate in land banking.

Commission Vice Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan said at the time that the county fielded requests from other municipalities, such as East Bethlehem Township and Charleroi, to forgive taxes – technically known as exoneration – owed on private property within their boundaries, prompting the commissioners to develop a policy that would be uniform throughout the county.

Inquiries about land-banking should be directed to Rob Phillips, assistant community development director with the redevelopment authority, 724-228-6875, ext. 220.